The American Civil War and the Natives

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In the years leading up to the American Civil War, the U.S. government, motivated by the idea of Manifest Destiny, was on a course of expanding its territory. It involved taking over acres of Native land by various means, including treaty making. So, how did the Natives view this expansion and the war itself?

A painting of a group of Native Americans sitting and standing in front of teepees.
In the Carolinas, the Catawba and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians served as soldiers of the Confederacy. (Image: George Catlin/Public domain)

Native Soldiers in the American Civil War

Some 20,000 American Indians enlisted in either the Union or the Confederate armies between 1861 and 1865 during the American Civil War. This included Ojibwes and Odawas in the First Michigan Sharpshooters; Oneidas and Stockbridge-Munsees in the 37th Wisconsin Volunteers; Iroquois in the Tuscarora Company of the 123rd New York Volunteers; as well as Sac and Fox and Omaha scouts, and Pequots and Mohegans from Connecticut,  who were enrolled in so-called colored regiments.

In the Carolinas, the Catawba and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians served as soldiers of the Confederacy. They did so strategically—as a means of protecting their own rights, sovereignty, and territory and not for any love of the Confederate States of America.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Lumbee Resistance to Joining the Forces

In contrast, the Lumbee Henry Berry Lowry lashed out at white supremacy in Robeson County, North Carolina, when they tried to force the Lumbee to serve the Confederacy during the Civil War. By the 1850s, the General Assembly of North Carolina categorized citizenship by race and voided marriages between whites and free persons of color back to the third generation. Both of these policies disenfranchised Native people, including the Lumbee.

That didn’t stop the state government from conscripting Lumbees during the Civil War. In 1861, some of them were shipped off to build a coastal fort at Wilmington, North Carolina, where they suffered from malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. Back home, the Lumbee endured violence directed at them by North Carolina’s Home Guard.

Henry Berry Lowry

In January 1865, Henry Berry Lowry returned violence for violence and, as Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army prepared to move across the Lumber River, the Lumbee assisted Union soldiers who had escaped from Confederate prisons. In March 1865, Henry Berry Lowry’s father and brother were murdered by the Home Guard, supposedly for deserting their duties at the fort in Wilmington.

Lowry,  in turn, organized a band that took revenge on the murderers. The raids Henry Berry Lowry carried out, with his kin and sometimes with the escaped Union soldiers, culminated in a seven-year war against white supremacy and made him a legend. Although he disappeared in 1872, Lowry continues to be a symbol of Lumbee resistance and persistence to this day.

Learn more about how the American Civil War played out in the western states and territories.

The Cherokee and the American Civil War

The Cherokee, who had been forcibly removed from the Southeast to the Indian Territory during the 1830s, experienced the Civil War quite differently. For them, it contributed to a civil war all their own.

For the Confederacy, the Indian Territory was important for its resources. The farms, plantations, and ranches, for instance, provided beef, hides, horses, and grain. Furthermore, the Confederacy hoped the Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations would provide troops to defend its far western borders.

But why should Indian people fight on either side—especially Southern Indians, for the Confederacy? It seems to make little sense given how badly they had been treated during the removal crisis of the early 19th century.

The Injustices of the U.S. Government

Much Cherokee animosity was directed against the former Indian fighter and President Andrew Jackson, now 20 years dead, and the federal government he had led. It was the United States that had forged treaties with the Cherokee through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, only to violate them all with the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota in 1835.

It was also the U.S. federal government that failed to provide adequate food, shelter, and transportation during the forced removal of the Cherokee to Indian Territory during the 1830s, which contributed to the loss of a quarter of their population. Moreover, the northern Free Soil and later Republican parties advocated for westward expansion without slavery, and they had Indian Territory in mind as a source of land.

And finally, many Southern Indians had adopted Southern cultural ways of life, including ownership of African-American slaves. As a result, the Cherokee divided internally over the question of whether to ally with the Union, with the Confederacy, or to remain neutral.

Learn more about the Cherokee Nation and the forced relocation.

A Civil War in Cherokee Nation

A portrait of John Ross.
John Ross had initially advocated for neutrality. (Image: Charles Bird King/Library of Congress/Public domain)

Principal Chief John Ross, who had guided the Cherokee Nation through the removal crisis and the difficult period of rebuilding the nation that followed, initially advocated for neutrality.

After the Union abandoned their forts in the Indian Territory in 1861, however, Ross concluded a treaty with the Confederacy, and the Cherokee National Council issued
a formal declaration of war against the United States in October of that year. The tide, however, soon turned.

In March 1862, the Union defeated a Confederate force supported by a large Cherokee contingent at the Battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas. A few months later, Ross, who switched his allegiance once more to the Union, was arrested in his home.

Stand Watie, a member of the pro-removal faction during the 1830s, became the principal chief of the pro-Confederate government in August 1862. Commanding the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, Watie commenced a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation that saw the burning of the capital buildings at Tahlequah and John Ross’s home at Park Hill.

Needless to say, the Civil War proved tremendously consequential for the Cherokee Nation.

Common Questions about the American Civil War and the Natives

Q: How many Natives were enlisted in the Union or Confederate armies between 1861 and 1865?

Some 20,000 Natives were enlisted in either the Union or the Confederate armies between 1861 and 1865.

Q: Who was Henry Berry Lowry?

Henry Berry Lowry led a resistance against white supremacy in North Carolina, when they tried to force the Lumbee to serve the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Q: Who was Stand Watie?

Stand Watie was the leader of the pro-removal faction, who led a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation during the American Civil War.

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